---- — A discussion of global faiths should not ignore the growing number of people in the modern Western world and elsewhere who claim to be nonreligious, whether just secular or decidedly anti-religious. They make up a growing percentage of the U.S. population, maybe an even bigger percentage of Europe’s population. There was a big anti-religion movement in Eastern Europe recently, we might remember. It was called communism.
Communism claimed to be nonreligious and even atheist, and when it came to power in Russia it sought to exterminate religion. But careful observers of communism noted that it had uncanny resemblances to religion, and that in two respects.
First, like many religions, communism had its “canon” of writings such as “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital.” It had its orthodoxy in Marxists such as Karl Kautsky and its heretics in others, including Edward Bernstein, who promoted what came to be condemned as “revisionism.” Communism had its chosen people, the proletariat, and their enemies, the bourgeoisie. It had its “holy day,” May 1, International Workers Day.
Second, communist theory seemed to borrow several ideas from Christianity — that history was going downhill to a judgment it called a revolution. Like the Christian tribulation, communism’s revolution would then usher in a new era, and that in two stages: first, a dictatorship of the proletariat, and second, a final paradisiac state of affairs described in Karl Marx’s quote from a French socialist, “From each according to his ability to each according to his need.”
Communism did not succeed in exterminating religion, but recently another anti-religious voice has appeared in books and speeches by people such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Some people have called them “evangelistic” atheists because of their efforts to get their anti-religious message out and to gain converts to their views. Interestingly, Christopher Hitchens never proposed to change his first name, which means “Christ bearer.” Christians should read Hitchens’ book, even if his attacks make them wince, because he registers critiques of Christianity that are valid and that we should recognize and deal with.
At one point in his book Hitchens resorts to the refrain, “Religion poisons everything.” That charge invites two responses. First his charge could be broadened. One could also say that politics poisons everything. Or that money poisons everything. But of course we know that religion and politics and money also do much good. That observation obliges us to recognize that the problem is deeper than religion, politics, or money — that there is something in the human condition that Christianity has called an Adamic nature, one that Christianity says can be replaced with the Christ nature.
Christopher Hitchens had a younger brother Peter who was also an atheist for a time but found his way back to the Church of England. Peter pointed Christopher to the story of communism as a refutation of the argument that religion poisons everything, because exterminating religion didn’t solve the problem. Like politics and money, religion has its problems, but exterminating religion may actually make the problems worse.
Marlin Jeschke is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College.
In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.